Displaced struggle to find homes in destroyed Sur in Turkey’s southeast

Fierce street battles between Turkish troops and Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) armed separatists displaced some 24,000 people from a historic district of the southeastern city of Diyarbakir two years ago; now they are struggling to move back into the area devastated by fighting and bulldozed for redevelopment.

The United Nations estimates that around 2,000 people were killed and up 500,000 displaced in months of clashes that erupted across the mainly Kurdish southeast of Turkey after a two-and-a-half-year ceasefire broke down between the state and the PKK in July 2015.

The youth wing of the PKK responded to their leaders’ declarations of autonomy in cities across the southeast by digging trenches and setting up barricades to keep the troops out. The army answered with artillery fire and sent in tanks.


Diyarbakir is the biggest city in Turkey's southeast and the Sur district is its ancient heart. Sur is surrounded by high black basalt walls dating back to the Roman era that are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

It was this district, with its rabbit warren of narrow winding streets, that saw the worst of the fighting and destruction. The government said 6,000 buildings were destroyed and it will cost 1 billion lira ($260 million) to rebuild them.

Sur street, Figen Gunes.
Sur street, Figen Gunes.

Even before the violence however, the government in 2012 earmarked much of Sur for redevelopment and issued expropriation orders for hundreds of properties. Many residents said the amount of compensation was not enough to buy new homes. There is no right of appeal against the purchase orders, but homeowners can ask for the amount of compensation to be reviewed.

Around 40 percent of Sur residents affected by the orders have cases open against the state in search of more compensation, according to the Stop Sur’s Destruction Platform. Turkey’s Engineers and Architects Association said 72 percent of the six Sur neighbourhoods affected by the fighting had been earmarked for demolition and redevelopment.

An urban regeneration programme in the districts of the Lalabey and Alipaşa, where there was no conflict, has also resulted in the demolition of 1,012 homes and the displacement of a further 6,000 people, according to the Turkish Statistics Bureau (TUİK). Most of the displaced people have moved to rental accommodation in other parts of Sur.

Sur, Figen Gunes.
Sur, Figen Gunes.

Six new police stations are to be built across Sur and the narrow streets will be widened, changing the character of the historic walled part of the city.

Many of those who left during the fighting have nevertheless began to move back into the neighbourhood from other parts of Diyarbakir. With unemployment rife, they said it expensive to live in other parts of the city while relying on state benefits. But even the cheapest housing in Sur can still cost around $100 a month.

“It was almost impossible to accommodate 24,000 displaced people in Sur after the conflict but if there were a chance today, more than 90 percent of those now outside would go back,” said Stop Sur’s Destruction Platform spokesman Talat Çetinkaya.

Talat Çetinkaya, Figen Gunes.
Talat Çetinkaya, Figen Gunes.

Sur resident Sahibe Öncil said the newly-built homes were only for the rich. The mother of two has moved from one part of the area to another and recounted the hunger pains as she was pinned down inside the house where she had lived for 30 years as bullets hit the walls. She finally moved out six weeks ago after water and electricity had been cut for five months.

She has managed to rent a new ground-floor apartment for $50 a month with the help of a local cafe owner. Inside the building, it is pitch black with no lighting.

“It’s prison here,” she said cheerfully.

Sahibe Öncil, Figen Gunes.
Sahibe Öncil, Figen Gunes.

Others want to stay in the area, but are too traumatised to move back into their former homes.

Mother-of-five Fatma Kayaalp said her former landlord had offered to let her move back to her old house free of charge, but she had turned him down.

“I did not accept, as the head of one of my relatives was shattered into pieces there in front of my eyes. I am traumatised, but I will come back to Sur again,” she said.

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